Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/August 1895/Editor's Table
WE publish in this number a criticism by a gentleman who, we understand, is connected with one of our most distinguished universities, of the article which appeared in these columns some months ago under the title of Back to Dogma. In that article we maintained that the then recent address of Lord Salisbury, as President of the British Association, was, to all intents and purposes, an appeal to the scientific world to put on once more those dogmatic shackles from which the philosophical advance of the present century was supposed to have set it free; and we endeavored to show how fatal to the further progress of scientific theory a compliance with such a suggestion would be. The author of the article we are now publishing seems to agree with us entirely that the general drift of the address was reactionary; but he considers that we go too far in another direction when we say that the reintroduction of the doctrine of design, as an explanation of things which challenge our curiosity, would mean "the death of scientific investigation."
If we have published this article we have done so—and we think it right to make the statement—less upon its merits as a piece of scientific or philosophical argumentation, than because we are anxious to give every opportunity for the free and fair criticism of opinions expressed in this journal. Science does not admit of any one-sided expositions; and it knows no orthodoxy save that which open discussion, free from all bias of self-interest and prejudice, may at any given moment appear to establish. It has always been the aim of this journal to convey to its readers the idea that science is not a rigid system of unalterable deductions, but consists essentially in the gradual adaptation of the thought of mankind to the ever-unfolding aspects and meanings of the universe. While holding our own views, therefore, of the questions which from time to time occupy the attention of the scientific world, we not only have no desire to exclude contrary expressions of opinion, but are entirely prepared to extend to them a cordial hospitality, provided they are stamped with a reasonable degree of logical force and adequacy. The address delivered by the Marquis of Salisbury was a case in point: we could not agree with its main positions, but neither could we deny that it was a highly plausible and, upon the whole, extremely able presentment of a view which formerly found multitudes of adherents, and still finds not a few. We therefore made a point of transferring it to our columns, while reserving the liberty to criticise it, as we did, in this portion of our journal. In the same spirit we publish Mr. Clark's article in which our criticism is called in question; and we have now to consider how far his objections to the position taken by us are valid.
As already mentioned, our critic agrees with us as to the reactionary character of Lord Salisbury's address. We expressed our sense of this by the heading we gave to our article Back to Dogma! and we hardly think it can be denied that if a reactionary movement takes place in the scientific world it must carry us back to dogma. That scientific investigation was formerly dominated by dogma, our critic seems quite prepared to acknowledge. Indeed, he uses language which so fully agrees with our own that we almost wonder he thought it worth while to find fault with our position. We said that an acceptance of the doctrine of design would be the death of scientific investigation. Mr. Clark, speaking of the Darwinian doctrine of natural selection, says that for thirty-five years it has been "the mainspring of research not merely in biology, but in all the field of natural science." But the two doctrines are completely opposed: so that what Mr. Clark says of the one is virtually a confirmation of what we said of the other. Take away or break "the mainspring of research," and what would follow? If the metaphor is sound, arrest of movement would follow; and what is arrest of movement but death, for the time being at least? Before Darwin's time, our critic says, "naturalists were content with statistics, and did not ask for reasons." And he adds, "that this was due to a belief in the immutability of species and the doctrine of design there can be little doubt." And yet, because we said what we did about the doctrine of design, we are accused of displaying "illogical reasoning and uncalled-for prejudice"!
At this point Mr. Clark gives a little twist to our words which does not speak well for his candor or his carefulness: let us trust that it was the latter that was at fault. We said that "the reason why the doctrine of design is so popular" is, partly because it is such a saver of intellectual toil, and partly because by making knowledge impossible it glorifies ignorance." Our critic, referring to this remark, says that to accuse "the great men who accepted that doctrine" in pre-Darwinian times of having done so for the reasons mentioned, "is a gross slander." Well, as we were speaking of what made the doctrine "popular" in the present day, and said nothing whatever about the great men of the past, who had hardly any choice in the matter, the "gross slander" exists only in Mr. Clark's imagination—a faculty which a man of science, such as he professes to be, should learn to keep in subjection.
Our critic finds that the very success of the doctrine of evolution has brought in a new danger. These are his words: "The doctrine of evolution has proved so satisfactory at every turn, that there is great danger that the ultimate motive for scientific research will be completely lost to sight." That motive he declares to be expressed in the interrogation "Why?" The older naturalists set themselves to answer the question "What?" In other words, they sought out and classified facts. Darwin came on the scene with the question "How?" and his answer thereto. And now Mr. Clark steps forward with the question "Why?" to which he hopes an answer will some day be forthcoming. He is not content to understand the processes of becoming; he wants to know what objects God has in view in causing things to happen as they do. That he declares to be the true motive for scientific research, without which it is a matter of "mere curiosity." As to the possibility of attaining to a knowledge of the why, he considers, rather oddly, that the success of the doctrine of evolution in answering the question How? should give us great encouragement. "Is not," he argues, "the doctrine of evolution becoming less and less of an hypothesis and more and more of an actually established law every year? Is not the evidence all tending to establish it completely, and to prove that even the obscure problems of life and heredity are all within the limits of human knowledge? Can we then he sure that the knowledge of why evolution has worked as it has is unattainable?"
It is really somewhat lamentable that a man who has evidently had some training in science, and who perhaps either is, or is about to become, a teacher of it, should reason in this way. Because a certain line of inquiry, dealing with natural causes, has proved eminently fruitful, therefore we may—such is the argument—reasonably suppose that another line of inquiry, dealing not with natural causes at all, but with the supposed motives of an Absolute Being, will also prove fruitful. When will our institutions of learning knock a little common logic into the heads of their graduates, so that they shall not be at the mercy of the first idle and misleading analogy that happens to flit through their brains? We should like to know whether Mr. Clark has ever tried to form any clear idea of what he means by attaining to a knowledge of the why—what, exactly, it would be like to see into the mind of a Divine Being, and acquire an understanding of his thoughts and purposes. Straining his imagination to the utmost, can he give us any hint as to the steps by which such knowledge as he aims at could be approached? In all the ages that have passed, has the smallest commencement been made toward an insight into the "Why"? The religions of the past have all, in their manner, grappled with the question, but with what result? Absolutely none. We know no more on this subject than our ancestors of a hundred generations ago; but we differ a little from our ancestors in being more content than they to abide in a necessary ignorance. We find, moreover, that a knowledge of the How renders in many cases a knowledge of the Why not only unnecessary but inconceivable—renders the very idea of such knowledge absurd. When we have once grasped the law of gravitation in its application to the solar system, do we feel any special need to ask why it was arranged that the attraction exerted by the sun and the planets upon one another should be directly as mass and inversely as distance? When we learn the properties of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, do we feel as if we must also know why they are endowed with such properties? When we see how running water sifts earthy materials, how the action of the waves furrows the sand, wears away rocks, and smooths pebbles, do we exclaim, "But why? oh, why?" When we study the laws of mechanics and grasp the simple formulas which express the action of the lever, the screw, and the inclined plane, do we feel that it would elevate us greatly in the scale of being to know why these things are so? It may be said, perhaps, that these are not the phenomena which suggest the question Why? If so, we reply that if we would know the true nature of that question we must apply it to such matters as these. Applied to these, we see that it is a silly and meaningless question; but none the less is it silly and meaningless when applied to other matters. Men want to know why a pestilence or famine was sent (as they say) at a particular time; they do not trouble themselves with the prior question whether it was sent at all in any proper meaning of the word. What we know is that sanitary science is showing an admirable power of controlling pestilences, and that famines only occur where there is defective knowledge and inferior social organization. Here again, therefore, a knowledge of the cause renders any inquiry into the why absolutely idle.
The highest motive for scientific research we hold—in opposition to our critic—to be the improvement of the conditions of human life. That there are, in our day, adequate motives for research is evident from the advances which science is making in every department; and that such advances are possible is due to the fact that men have, for some generations, been mainly seeking answers to the question "How?" Were they now to betake themselves to the question which Mr. Clark commends to the attention of the scientific world, the result would be a disastrous arrest of progress. In the ages when pestilences were of frequent occurrence, all the conjecturing that men could do as to why they were sent did not avail one jot to check their virulence. The knowledge that was needed, we see clearly now, was the knowledge of how they were caused. If that could have been got through the wool of our ancestors, their sufferings would have been wonderfully abated. And to-day, as then, the knowledge that is most needful is the knowledge of causes. Take away from us our knowledge of causes, and all that we could conjecture of Divine purposes would not save us from plunging into barbarism.
By the death of Professor Huxley the world has lost a man whom it could ill spare. He was one of the very few men who unite to a real capacity for original work the impulse and the ability to bring home the results of scientific research to the popular mind. He believed that a knowledge of science, and above all of scientific method, was good for mankind; and he turned aside from studies in which he had won renown, and might have won more, in order that he might preach what he considered the gospel of science to the multitude. Some of his friends regretted this; in the interest of his fame they would have preferred that he should never have quitted the higher walks of scientific investigation; but for our own part it seems to us impossible that Huxley should have chosen his course otherwise than as he did. He had, what few of the devotees of pure science possess, strong popular sympathies and an extremely active temperament. He could not so immerse himself in the minutiae of anatomy, or the obscurities of physiological processes, as to be indifferent to what was going on in the world around him. He was interested in fishes and reptiles, but he was more interested in his fellow-men; and it would be difficult to overestimate the value of the service he rendered in promoting sound habits of thought in this generation. Having won complete intellectual emancipation for himself, he desired that others should share the same benefit; and wherever the cause of intellectual liberty seemed to be in danger, there he was ready to come forward in its defense.
No one could read a page of Professor Huxley's writings without being struck by the breadth of culture they displayed. He was not a university-bred man, and yet in his knowledge of literature and philosophy—to say nothing of his strictly scientific attainments—he put the vast majority of university men to shame. His culture, however, was never merely on exhibition as culture; it was employed in the most legitimate manner to strengthen the causes he had at heart. There was in him too broad a humanity and too much of earnest purpose to permit him to lapse into the arts of the rhetorician. Not often indeed has such a combination of gifts been seen in one writer; and. now that he has gone from us, it is a supreme satisfaction to reflect how nobly these gifts were used, how sincerely and courageously and untiringly they were devoted to the good of mankind. The world is poorer by the death of Huxley; but the greatest must pass sooner or later from the stage of existence, and, as they pass, the lesson of their lives comes out with greater distinctness. Of Huxley we may truly say that he enriched the life of our time by his thought and by his example, and that the forces which to-day make for progress in the world are better organized for victory, and move forward with steadier hope, through the help and inspiration which he afforded.
When it was announced a short time ago that the Emperor of Germany had bestowed a knighthood of the "Ordre pour le Mérite" upon Mr. Herbert Spencer, many of the friends and admirers of the philosopher thought that possibly this had been done with his concurrence, and that in this case he had made an exception to his general practice of declining all such decorations. It seems, however, that such is not the fact. Mr. Spencer was not aware that any such recognition of his eminence as a thinker and writer was in contemplation; and when the offer was made to him he courteously and respectfully declined it. The question has sometimes been asked by persons of a shallow way of thinking how it is, if Mr. Spencer is really a philosopher of mark, that the title-pages of his books do not show the academic and other distinctions that he has received. The answer has been given more than once; but we may as well take advantage of the present incident to give it once more: that such distinctions have over and over again been offered to Mr. Spencer, but that he has made an invariable rule of declining them. Whether he has been altogether wise in this is a matter on which opinions may differ; but his motive, so far as we understand it, seems to be unquestionably sound. He does not wish to appeal to the world with any prestige borrowed from the approval of universities, academies, or constituted authorities of any kind. He wishes his works to be judged on their own merits, pure and simple, quite apart from the glamour which the possession of honorary degrees and membership in so-called learned societies is prone to shed. In the case of the German "Ordre pour le Mérite" it is stated, and we believe with truth, that Mr. Spencer had a special objection to the idea of receiving distinction from the hand of the autocratic head of the most military nation of modern times. In his mind militarism is associated with all that is retrograde and tyrannical; he holds it to be the chief influence which to-day retards the development of society; and we can well understand therefore that, apart from his general objection to official decorations of all kinds, he would feel compelled, on grounds of consistency, to decline an honor which would have brought him into a kind of personal relation with a system of government he totally disapproved.
To sum up Mr. Spencer's position, he writes for mankind at large, not for powers or principalities, for courts or for coteries. If his labors bring him the honor of his fellow-men, that is the highest reward he craves; to honors as commonly understood he is indifferent. He is the "Great Commoner" of philosophy, and without the aid of titles sways the thought of the world more potently than any other man of this generation.